Hashim Amla is not new. He’s been bearding hundreds for many years now. It is therefore no surprise that his second innings hundred tipped the balance from ‘could go either way’ to ‘very probably a South Africa win’. Vernon Philander’s two late wickets then shoved it to ‘almost certainly a South Africa win’ but he can thank Amla for giving him the opportunity to do that.
Going into the final day, all results are at least technically still possible, so for the most part it’s been a fairly even Test. ‘Fairly even’ doesn’t mean ‘destined for a draw’. It means one side has had to play well to get into a position of dominance and Amla’s contribution looks most influential.
It’s not just England’s specialist batsmen who have been found wanting in this match. Take Amla’s hundred out and South Africa’s top six have actually only scored 14 runs between them. This is a lie – but not that big a lie.
However, with batsmen like Amla, it’s not just about the shots or the runs; it’s the sense you get when he’s batting. It just doesn’t feel like he’s ever going to get out. We don’t know much about professionalism, but Amla’s helmet and clothes must reek of it. Professionalism smells, right?
You wonder whether it’s worth England batting Jonny Bairstow at the top of the order. It’s not that he’s particularly suited to the role, but if the opposition remain hell-bent on bouncing the shit out of him, it might soften the ball a bit for all the batsmen who follow.
Turns out Jonny Bairstow doesn’t really have a weakness against the short ball – at least not a significant weakness; not a debilitating Suresh Raina level of incompetence. He can duck okay and he can play the pull shot. He’ll probably get better with more experience.
As it stands, he’s good enough to make 72 not out against a quick attack on a decent pitch under clear skies. This isn’t to damn him with faint praise. It’s just stating the facts. There was plenty to admire about his innings without turning it into fiction.
Mostly, like England’s last ginger right-hander, he just doesn’t seem that bothered by stuff. At one point, he half-left and then tried to play a ball which pretty much grazed his off-stump. A lot of batsmen would feel a bit nervy after that. Bairstow genuinely seemed to find it funny.
That’s a reassuring response. A nervy batsman would have played with self-conscious certainty at the next delivery. They’d want bat on ball. Bairstow left it.
Yesterday, we said that England needed to take wickets quickly. They did. How did they achieve this? Well, actually, we’re not sure they had all that much to do with it.
It was almost like South Africa had exhausted their collective mental reserves; like much of the side’s patience and self-control had been frittered away during their 637-2 in the first Test. A bit of fortune, a dodgy decision, the odd good delivery and England are in a reasonable position.
Anderson was very good, as you’d expect. Finn was hit and miss, as you’d expect. Swann hung in there. But what of Broad? He seems to have become a lolloping and ineffectual medium-pacer. Nowt wrong with a bit of medium-pace, as long as that’s why they hired you, but ’76mph dobblage’ isn’t on Broad’s CV.
Always be wary of guns – even cricket’s speed guns. Most bowlers’ speeds have been lower in this series than in some others. The data is probably accurate for once. This in itself is of no concern, but what is striking is that Broad seems to be bowling significantly slower than James Anderson. It used to be the other way round.
As we always say: speed isn’t everything, but it is something. The usual explanations have been trotted out: bowling for swing, loss of rhythm, a niggle. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Broad looked the least threatening quarter of England’s bowling attack.
Graeme Smith’s second innings declaration had a whiff of safe aggression about it. It was like swearing at a pedestrian from the top deck of a moving bus. England could have run and climbed aboard at the next stop, but it was never likely. They settled for doing a half-jog and waving their fist a little bit.
It was a decent Test that was a little bit knackered by the weather. A couple more sessions would have been nice, but one-nil down the onus was on England to make the running and the draw was always favourite once South Africa had taken a giant, fat man mouthful of time from the match with their first innings.
That’s the thing about a three-match series: if one team takes the lead, they can play conservatively and hedge their bets a little. It’s not that the South Africans aren’t playing to win, it’s that they don’t need to really pursue victories. They can remain on the bus.
England have to disembark and confront their opponents, but it has to be said that they’re naturally better suited to being in South Africa’s position. They’re strongest when they bide their time and apply controlled pressure.
This isn’t a complaint about the nature of the cricket, by the way. It’s actually pretty intriguing. There’s a no-time-to-waste, hit-and-run quality to three-match series which gives them an interesting dynamic. It’d be great if it got to a best-of-three scenario after two Tests had already been played, obviously, but what are you going to do?
That isn’t a rhetorical question. What are you going to do?
Up until today, South Africa have been appropriating England’s Test template. They’ve batted for bloody ages and wearied the opposition batsmen in the process, sapping their concentration and vitality. Their first innings 419 wasn’t a monstrous score, but 139 overs was plenty to put into England’s legs and minds.
It was also plenty of overs to subtract from the match, considering England have to win to have any chance of winning this stupidly short series. However, England have a Kevin Pietersen and if you have one of those, you can buy yourself a lot of time.
This 149 not out off 212 balls has included some shots that are ridiculous even when measured on the KP scale. One kamehameha drive could quite honestly have killed Dale Steyn if it hadn’t just missed his head, while a ludicrous straight six shortly afterwards snuffed out a lot of South African enthusiasm. That’s also handy. There’s more than one way to dispirit the opposition.
If you can refrain from trying to mimic him, it must be easier batting in partnership with Pietersen. The bowlers might have some added fire initially, but it would take adamantium resolve for them to shrug off some of his boundaries. They basically amount to abuse. Even the best bowler in the world can be cowed by that – at least temporarily.
Kev’s task now is to shrug off today’s cockiness and get himself in again tomorrow. Unfortunately, while he can do some amazing things with a bat in his hand, but we’re not entirely certain that’s one of them. Also, the weather forecast’s crap for day four. He definitely can’t sort that.
Jonathan Trott’s guard-marking routine is infamous. He has a series of things he NEEDS to do before he’s happy to face a delivery.
Morne Morkel’s turn at the start of his run-up is less well-known, but is seemingly just as deeply ingrained. It seems he can’t run into bowl without doing a full 360 degree turn at the outset.
In this Test, Morkel and Trott have clashed.
Where do wasps come into this?
Digger wasps paralyse their prey before taking it back to their nest. However, rather than taking the insect straight into the nest, they first leave it outside so that they can check that everything’s okay indoors. Having confirmed this, they then come outside to collect it and bring it in.
Ordinarily, this all works well enough, but if some devious person moves the prey while the wasp’s inside the nest – even by just an inch – then the wasp is set back a stage. It will pick up the insect, return it to the original spot and then go back inside to check everything’s okay again. If you’re the one moving the prey, you can actually do this again and again and the wasp will never learn.
So how’s that relevant?
Because it’s pointless behaviour repeated mindlessly given the right stimulus. It seems that Trott’s pre-delivery routine is triggered by the bowler turning round and being as Morkel’s pre-delivery routine involves turning round, the pair of them have been getting caught in an OCD loop.
Morkel turns to begin his run-up and when Trott sees the bowler facing the other way, he immediately finds himself pacing and pawing at the crease, as he always does between balls. Morkel then has to stop and wait for Trott to finish. When Trott is finally ready to face a delivery, Morkel turns to begin his run-up and the same thing happens again.
South Africa looked so vulnerable against right-arm fast-medium bowlers during the first Test that England have added a fourth. Our feelings on this are well-known. You should always play a spinner.
It’s not just about having a specialist should the pitch offer significant turn later in the match (although that’s important). It’s also about changing the tempo of the game. No matter how different your right-arm fast-medium bowlers are from one another, they are still pretty damn similar in the grand scheme of things.
If you’re batting against an attack like England’s, the ball arrives at a similar pace, the fielders are in much the same places and the ploys to dismiss you are much the same. You can settle. You don’t need to think so much.
Playing four seamers is also kind of boring. There are some people who like to go out and drink five pints of strong lager that’s been chilled to the point of tastelessness. These people are interested in the end result. But other people enjoy the process; they like the taste of beer. These people will probably try several different beers over the course of the night and the variety adds to their enjoyment.
Bowling change. Right-arm fast-medium. Again.
We’re not a fan of batting. Fours and sixes elicit an approving nod of the head, but they don’t move us in the same way as wickets. This has perhaps been compounded by a period of Test cricket that lasted until recently in which huge scores became the norm. That said, there was an enormous amount to admire about the batting of Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and above all Hashim Amla this week. It was almost perfect.
There’s a paradox in that every big innings eats itself a little. The more runs a batsman scores, the easier the conditions are presumed to be. Certainly The Oval didn’t present the stiffest of tests for the South Africans and England didn’t provide the toughest of Tests for them, but to lose two wickets in 189 overs is an achievement in itself.
Every delivery can potentially result in a wicket, but it’s amazing how this fact can transmogrify into fantasy as an innings wears on. Bowlers’ spirits are eroded and batsmen’s confidence builds and often it only ends when the latter gets out of hand. The three South Africans exhibited an iron will in preventing that from happening.
During an innings like South Africa’s 637-2, there comes a point at which it’s no longer about any particular shot or passage of play. It’s most admirable in totality. The sheer scale of what’s happened is the most striking thing about it – all that time and so few mistakes. It’s an exercise in perseverance, endurance and faultlessness, like setting up a giant domino rally only without the toppling pay-off.
It’s also good because you can go outside and enjoy the sun and you won’t miss much.
Is there a real lack of perspective these days, or is it just that the internet has provided an outlet for people who never had it? Before the first Test, some people were talking up Vernon Philander as being the main threat to England’s batsmen and after the first day, others felt Dale Steyn had become mediocre.
Philander’s a fine bowler, but to get all het up about his bowling average was to ignore the fact that he had only bowled in South Africa and New Zealand – two of the more seam-friendly nations. His Test achievements are striking, but they don’t begin to make a case for superiority over Steyn. Steyn is the best fast bowler around because he is the best fast bowler overall.
Philander is probably more accurate, but Steyn is still pretty tidy. Shaun Tait is faster, but Steyn is fast enough and he’s a damn sight quicker than Tait after eight overs, never mind after 20. James Anderson is probably more skilful, but Steyn still swings the ball. Basically, he is up there with the best no matter what fast bowling quality you look at.
He’s athletic. He has great cardiovascular fitness. He’s aggressive. He bowls swing and seam and a mean bouncer. He has a fair idea how to size up a pitch and he can identify batsmen’s weaknesses. His bad days aren’t too bad and his good days are exceptional.
We know all of this, because we’ve seen him take hundreds of Test wickets. To suggest that Philander’s somehow more of a threat because he’s dobbled the shit out of the opposition in two home series and one in New Zealand is demented. What’s his average in India? We don’t know. Steyn’s is 20.
When it comes to meticulous planning, individual excellence and the most admirable examples of team spirit, the cyclists seem to have cornered the market here in Britain. The cricket team has rather folded.
Can no side merely lose a Test match any more? Nowadays, when good teams fall, it always seems to be an innings defeat. India and Australia have both been on the receiving end against England in recent years and now England have been given a chance to feel the same pain after South Africa positively annihilated them at The Oval. Told you they shouldn’t have played in London.
Why are innings defeats for seemingly decent sides becoming so common? Are preparations so specifically targeted that anything outside what’s been predicted results in implosion? Does extreme dominance breed equally extreme complacency? Why should that be any more true now than in the past? It’s baffling.
Maybe it’s a matter of peaking. There are so many different competitions, no side can hope to be at its best for all of them. India peaked for the World Cup. England peaked for India. South Africa have peaked for England.
England should have peaked for South Africa as well, of course. Maybe they have, in which case three Tests will actually be plenty, thank you very much. Or maybe they tried to, but have had some of their focus sapped and their edge dulled by the one-dayers against Australia.
Reasons and excuses. It’s more salient to wonder whether they can address this in time for the second Test. We don’t believe in momentum in cricket, so we aren’t saying it can’t happen. However, we do believe in one cricket team being better than another and in just one Test match we have been provided with quite a lot of evidence that says England won’t win this series.